Xinjiang Students Continue to Harvest Cotton, Directive Allows Child Labor

November 14, 2011

Education authorities in Xinjiang have continued to require students to pick cotton during the fall harvest, in some cases violating permitted parameters for "work-study" programs as stipulated in local directives, as well as contravening domestic and international standards regulating students' work activities and prohibiting child labor. Xinjiang authorities announced in 2008 that students in junior high and lower grades would no longer pick cotton in work-study programs, but issued a directive in 2009 that appears to affirm that younger students may continue to engage in cotton harvesting and other labor as part of work to "help with agriculture," despite the prohibitions against child labor in Chinese law. Reports from the past year indicate that some localities used these younger students to harvest cotton. Xinjiang high schools and colleges continued to make older students pick cotton in work-study programs, in some reported cases exceeding the permitted time period for work-study under local directives and in one reported case levying fines on students who didn't meet quotas. Work-study programs and cotton-picking activities have drawn complaints from students and parents due to the hazards of the work and effect on children's education. The use of student labor this year comes as the region reported difficulties in recruiting regular agricultural workers to pick cotton.

Xinjiang Directives Permit Cotton Harvesting
Education authorities in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) have continued to require students to pick cotton during the fall harvest. In some cases, students have been required to pick cotton as part of formal "work-study" programs that integrate the labor into the school curriculum. A circular issued by the Xinjiang Education Department in 2008 ended the practice of having students enrolled in the state's compulsory nine years of elementary and junior high school education pick cotton in work-study programs. (Analysis here. Full text of circular apparently unavailable.) The circular appeared to leave some other forms of work-study in place for these students, while continuing to permit the use of older students to harvest cotton in work-study programs. A 2006 opinion defined the overall scope of work-study, limiting it to children in the third grade of elementary school and higher, as well as limiting work-study to 7 days for elementary school students and 14 days for students in higher grades. The XUAR government reportedly discontinued cotton-picking work-study activities for younger students because central government funding for rural compulsory education now met XUAR schools' funding needs. Despite the prohibition, some schools continued to require younger students to harvest cotton in work-study programs. (See analyses 1, 2 from 2008 and 2010.)

A 2009 circular recently found by the Congressional-Executive Commission on China builds on the 2008 directive and appears to explicitly permit labor by younger students outside the context of work-study, as well as to continue to permit certain forms of labor within the work-study context. (See the only apparent full text copy of the circular on the Internet as posted on August 20, 2009, on the Kuitun Education Bureau Web site.) The circular affirms the 2008 prohibition on elementary and junior high school students picking cotton (Item 1). It notes that with funding advances for compulsory education, schools will no longer organize work-study with the goal of making a profit, but specifies that schools may organize certain types of work-study and other "social practice" activities in order to generate income to be used to support the daily needs and studies (shenghuo he xuexi) of poor students (Item 2). The circular also notes that any crop picking or harvesting activities organized by local governments are not to be considered as "work-study" activities (Item 3)—an apparent allowance for continued crop harvesting by young students, though removing it as a formal part of the school curriculum and basis for grading students. Formal work-study programs had provoked criticism in the past in part because students' performance in the activities affected their academic record, though parents and students also objected to the arduousness of the labor and exposure to danger. A government response to an inquiry on work-study by junior high students, posted September 7, 2011, on a message board on the Xinjiang Education Department Web site, affirms that the 2008 and 2009 government circulars continue to guide policy in the region.

The practical distinction between younger students' cotton harvesting in work-study programs (still practiced in some localities in recent years despite the 2008 prohibition) and cotton harvesting to "help with agriculture" appears minimal. Students and parents continue to object to both forms of labor and at least one locality appears to have prohibited the use of child cotton harvesters in any context. (See discussion below.) The use of younger students to harvest cotton violates domestic and international protections against child labor. The work-study programs for older students as implemented in parts of the XUAR violate permitted parameters for work-study as stipulated in local directives and contravenes domestic and international standards regulating students' work activities. See a previous CECC analysis for more information.

Students Continue to Pick Cotton in the XUAR in 2011
Although it is unclear the full extent to which younger students were involved in cotton harvesting this year—either under the guise of permitted activities to "help with agriculture" or in work-study programs, despite the 2008 prohibitions—some media reports and blog postings indicate that the use of child labor to harvest cotton continued. In one case, a report described this as work to "help with agriculture," and in other cases, the framework for organizing the labor was unclear. According to a September 24, 2011, Bingtuan News Net article profiling cotton harvesters, the 44th Regiment (3rd Agricultural Division, Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps) Number 1 Middle and Elementary School in Kashgar district organized students to "help with agriculture" by picking cotton. The Bingtuan News Net article profiled a student in the sixth grade at the school. Though the identities of the authors cannot be verified, blog and Internet postings from junior high school students also suggest that younger students continue to pick cotton. A blogger describing himself as a first-year junior high student (7th-grade student) at the same Kashgar school reported that his school had arranged for students to pick cotton, with daily quotas of 25 kilograms [4 kilograms above the quota for his classmate in the grade below him, discussed above], according to a September 24 posting (cached) on a blog hosted at The author of a September 22 posting on the variety site Maopu said that students enrolled in nine years of compulsory education were made to pick cotton. The author noted that students in the third grade and above—a possible reference to elementary school students, based on the context—had been required to pick cotton for 15 days. A report from a township in Keping (Kelpin) county, Aksu district, called for the township to end the practice of using students in compulsory education to pick cotton, according to a September 7 report on Kunlun Net.

Older students also picked cotton this year, in some reported cases exceeding the permitted 14-day time period for work-study as stipulated under local directives and in one reported case levying fines on students who didn't meet quotas. A vice principal at one senior high school in Huocheng (Korgas) county, Ili Kazakh Autonomous Prefecture, reported students would perform 20 days of work-study activities to pick cotton, training them to "endure hardships" and learn teamwork, according to a September 24 report on Ili Net. (See an undated posting on Zhongguo Gaoxiao Portal for more information about the school.) Students will live on the premises while picking cotton, according to the report. In Wusu (Shixo) city, Tacheng (Tarbaghatay) district, Ili—where a parent complained in 2008 that junior high school students were made to pick cotton and where students in 2008 and 2010 reportedly did this work beyond the permitted time period of 14 days—students at one senior high school were reported to pick cotton again for 15 days this year as part of "social practice labor" allowing them to "experience the hardships and happiness of labor," according to a September 27 report on the Xinjiang Agricultural Information Portal Web site. (See an undated posting on the Wusu Municipal Education Bureau Web site for information noting that the school is a senior high school.) A September 20 Fujian Online report about a technical college in the XUAR reported that the school required all second-year students to pick cotton for two weeks and face fines if they didn't meet quotas, with all profits going to the college president.

The use of student labor comes amid reports of a shortage of cotton pickers that exceeds shortages in previous years, according to recent media reports. A September 8, 2011, Xinhua report noted high expenses for harvesting cotton this year and problems in attracting workers to the XUAR to pick cotton. A labor recruiter interviewed in the story attributed the labor recruitment difficulties to workers' raised wage expectations amid a rise in commodity prices, comparable wages in jobs such as the urban construction industry, and resistance to wage deductions given to middlemen who recruit cotton pickers. A cotton farmer cited in a September 20 Tianshan Net article attributed the worker shortage to a rise in workers' wages in other areas, thereby reducing the number of people who carry out temporary labor to pick cotton, along with insufficient support from local governments in organizing labor exports and fluctuating wages for cotton pickers. A labor recruiter cited in an October 11 China Daily article noted workers were hard to recruit because "[s]ome have concerns and even misunderstandings about the long journey, intensive labor and personal security, which makes them unwilling to come." The previous year, one official cited the Urumqi "July 5 Incident" (demonstrations and riots that took place in July 2009), as a cause of the region's labor shortage in 2010. The XUAR plans to recruit a total of 400,000 workers in 2011 from areas in China outside the XUAR, according to a Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps regiment leader cited in a September 19 Tianshan Net report. Xinjiang residents from "all areas and ethnicities" also have joined the ranks of the cotton pickers, according to the report.

For additional information on conditions in the XUAR and on child labor, see Section II—Worker Rights and Section IV—Xinjiang in the CECC 2011 Annual Report.